Monday, June 2, 2008

Record Review: Fleet Foxes: s/t

The much-hyped indie folk five-piece follows its excellent Sun Giant EP with its excellent full-length debut.

Rating: 4/5



Here we go again. Another artist who blew up (using the term “blew up” liberally) through MySpace…yet, it doesn’t seem so interesting, weird, or trendy anymore. It’s a good talking point for an intro to album review, but it says very little about the band. In this case, the band is Fleet Foxes, a much blogged about Seattle-based five-piece and, yeah, they’re good, which seems to be the key thing MySpace Stars have in common. (except for Kate Nash ;) )

If you’ve heard that Fleet Foxes sound like Grizzly Bear…well, those comparisons certainly have some merit, as the former’s debut record often recalls the harmonious, bucolic psych-folk of the latter’s fantastic 2006 effort Yellow House. Drawing connections between Fleet Foxes and a more middle-of-the-road contemporary like, let’s say, Band of Horses isn’t totally out of left field either, and to backtrack a few decades, parallels to artists like Neil Young or the Band could be drawn as well.

And the list goes on for pages and pages, if you wish. If you’ve heard FF’s Sun Giant EP, you know that the band isn’t out to revolutionize modern music. At the same time, if you’ve heard Sun Giant, you also know that Fleet Foxes are one of the most promising bands around, and that a band need not explore some new musical frontier if they can roam the old ones with such mastery. On both the EP and the LP, Fleet Foxes excel through golden harmonies, homespun, inviting warmth, and a flawless sense of dynamic, an impeccable ability to quickly but seamlessly build from skeletal balladry to full band jam and drift back down to earth with ease.

Dynamic songcraft is the band’s most important element, the one that separates Fleet Foxes from other up-and-coming bands and gives their songs unpredictability and uniqueness. Late album gem “Blue Ridge Mountains” is one of the best instances: it begins with quiet acoustic strums and faint harmonizing, a sort of bare, meditative stillness, but soon singer Robin Pecknold’s vocals emerge with crystal clarity over top a much crisper, quicker guitar-piano backdrop. It’s not long before the track ascends again, this time to the infectious climax, with Pecknold crooning poetic lyrics like “In the quivering forest/Where the shivering dog lies” while the band moves as a unified, propulsive unit behind him. Before you know it, it’s over, and you want to experience it all again.

Elsewhere, the previously released “White Winter Hymnal” gets a welcome reprise (albeit in a slightly truncated form), and, in the context of the album, nicely sets up the fuller, more up-tempo “Ragged Wood.” This type of one-two punch occurs frequently on Fleet Foxes, where understated, stripped down hymns set the table for straight-ahead rockers (okay, nothing on this record really “rocks,” but you get the idea). Like on “Blue Ridge Mountains,” the sense of dynamic is key in keeping an album fresh and engaging that could have easily fallen into a rut, a simple, unimaginative rehash of traditional folk, baroque pop, and the handful of other genres that comprise Fleet Foxes’ style.

Yet, for all of its deliberate shifts, nothing on Fleet Foxes seems even remotely labored or unnatural. In fact, it will likely be one of the most effortless and sincere records we’ll hear in 2008. Honestly, it doesn’t have any moments that completely knock my socks off, but Fleet Foxes exhibits a band with a distinct, rich sound and consistently strong songwriting. MySpace or no MySpace, what more can anyone ask for?

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